American Culture

WordsDay: Coffee makes Hemingway a little surly…and his biographer a little too careful

Ah, thank goodness we can learn about great historical figures from reading thanks to a premise that makes the process “as easy a having a cup of coffee….”

Coffee with Hemingway by Kirk Carnutt (image courtesy Goodreads)

The first essay based on a book from the the 2014 reading list looks at another in a series of “biographies” that use the device of having the author have coffee with an illustrious personage while readers “eavesdrop.” I reviewed one of the works in this series last year and, life being what it is, I stumbled upon another at my favorite used bookstore sometime in the fall and snagged it for this year’s list. As I noted about this book’s predecessor, which focused on Mozart, these works are meant to be quick reads – and they represent the “high concept” approach to publishing. This explains, as I noted in my Coffee with Mozart review, why the two best selling titles in the series are Coffee with Marilyn and Coffee with Groucho. And why Coffee with Plato lags in sales….

That’s perhaps neither here nor there, however. Though a slight book, Coffee with Mozart would teach anyone a few things about the great composer that even watching Amadeus wouldn’t provide while providing a charming, if possibly completely imagined, characterization of the person. Coffee with Hemingway teaches a few things about the American literary lion – and, well, some unintended lessons about writing fluff biographies.

Coffee with Hemingway is in some ways a “more serious” book than Coffee with Mozart. Neither is going to win any awards as great works of biography, but the Hemingway book works somewhat better than the Mozart book as biography. Perhaps this is because we know Hemingway’s persona much better (he was certainly a major 20th century celebrity, even though, unlike most of our current celebrities, he actually had talent and could do something besides be famous for being famous) and, as a writer, he left behind voluminous journals, correspondence, and other materials upon which Kirk Curnutt, professor of English at Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama, could draw in developing his imaginary coffee klatsch. So much of the conversation in Coffee with Hemingway is composed of actual Hemingway statements used either in paraphrase or quoted directly. So Curnutt would likely win the scholarly accuracy competition going away against Julian Rushton, the author of Coffee with Mozart.

What keeps bugging me, though, is that I liked the Mozart book better. As an English professor myself I understand the desire for accuracy: indeed, we have a whole school of criticism devoted to making sure texts are as accurate (i.e., as close to the author’s intent) as possible. Curnutt is careful with Hemingway. As a writer himself, he understands the misunderstanding that haunts all writers – in formalist criticism (well, “new” criticism, as it was called) readers can be ever so guilty of the “intentional fallacy.” So he never assumes to have Hemingway say anything that he hasn’t vetted to make sure that’s what Hemingway would say.

Which is all well and good, I suppose. But in sticking so close to the “real” Papa’s actual words, he misses an opportunity to allow himself to imagine what Hemingway would say. And that’s a shame. What makes Rushton’s conversation with Mozart endearing in its own “pop history” sort of way is that Rushton does allow himself to imagine what the Boy Wonder of Music would say. And lets him say it – zany at times though it might be.

I feel for both these guys. In my most recent book, the main character has a conversation with Ringo Starr – as famous a figure as the 20th century produced. And I just let Ringo say what I figured Ringo would say based on what I’ve seen Ringo say in interviews. And I think I got it right, if reader/reviewer reaction is any proof. Sometimes the spirit of what’s said offers more insight than scholarly accuracy in recording what would be said. Rushton seems to get that – and his Mozart comes across as more vibrant and believable than Curnutt’s Hemingway even though Curnutt uses plenty of Papa’s actual words to prove that Hemingway was a surly so and so. Curnutt’s is the more accurate conversation, perhaps; but Rushton’s is much more fun. And a “Coffee with…” book should be fun because no sensible reader is going to mistake it for serious biography. Maybe what I’m saying is that, as Rushton shows us in his conversation with Mozart, it’s the music, not the lyrics, that make the song….

So here’s the takeaway – if you’re writing a scholarly biography of a major literary/historical/artistic/cultural figure, yeah, get the quotes and their intent right. That sort of stuff is what scholarship is all about. But if you’re writing a “Coffee with” book about one of the above sorts of figures, why not have fun with it? I mean, some long dead luminary is not going to sue for slander, right? Right?

4 replies »

  1. nice piece. i’ve read several of the hemingway biographies and even his biographers, who are to some extent paid to like their subjects, seem to agree he was a bombastic bully with an attitude of entitlement. he was a fine writer, but will probably be mostly remembered for being one of the first celebrity brands, and using his lifestyle (or self-promoted lifestyle,) to sell his work.

    • As we both know, Otherwise, Papa was more often than not an asshole. I will say this for Curnutt’s little book: it tries to get at why, though such a task is more than his 120 pages or so would allow. Still, he marshals the Hemingway material well and presents both things EH wrote and said that give some insight into WHY Hemingway felt he had to be so damned jackassed. Still, I think Carlos Baker nailed the guy when he called him “our greatest 17 year old novelist.” Not sure if he was referring to Hem’s actual work or to his behavior – probably to both – I think EH’s tendency to bite the hands that fed him (Stein, Sherwood Anderson, et. al.) has probably cost his rep more in the intellectual community than anything else. Though it’s entirely possible that because those figures represent, it seems to me, a beginning of the sort of mentoring so rampant in CW programs now that maybe we should be more generous to EH for at least trying to resist the “beholdedness” that occurs too much in such cases.

      As a writer brand, he has no peer, I think. I remember being at the High Point furniture market (used to be a big deal in furniture industry) and seeing “Hemingway style” furniture – sort of a mishmash of Key West and safari appointments. When part of the decor is a pic of you with a kudu you just shot, you are definitely a brand. And, frankly, I think the s.o.b. loved his celebrity despite his protests….

  2. I’m always a bit leery of these things. I’m not sure why. Peter Kreeft, a Boston University philosophy prof who’s work I like, has written a few of these, but I’ve not read them. One is a conversation between John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley, who, if I remember correctly, all died on the same day. It’s an imagined conversation over their worldviews in heaven (or some afterlife location) that day. He’s also written a series of books with Socrates in conversation with other philosophers.

    • You know Retro, I protest about these damned things – but I keep reading them. I’m beginning to think it’s like the pediatric explanation of why a small child will continue drinking something like poison if it’s in a container that once held something the child likes (the classic example is the old “gasoline in a Coke bottle” horror). It’s a book, right? I like books. It’s about Mozart/Hemingway/whoever, right? I’m always interested in more info on Mozart/Hemingway/whoever…well, you see where this leads…. 🙂